What is the future of robots?

In a speech several years ago, the ‘father of industrial robots,’ Joe Engleberger suggests that much of the current research is headed in the wrong direction. He suggested that the right direction is where we are now – security robots!



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  1. #1 by Dave Wyland on February 23, 2013 - 2:21 pm

    What is the future of robots?

    My contention: Look for the obvious, the low hanging fruit. Growth will define direction, and working standards come from things being widely used in high volume.

    Industrial robots are very successful, indeed, but they are not really robots in the sense of R2D2, C3P0 and Commander Data. They are defined by the RIAA as computer programmable automatic machines. Their “robot” title is honorary, given to the original hope rather than the real result.

    Industrial robots move things around, from here to there. This includes (as a subset) moving a spot welder or paint gun around a car being assembled. Movement is carefully controlled and repeated: they are automated machines. This is because industrial robots have been blind until the recent revolution in 3D vision. Even so, robotics has been a multi-billion $$ business for a long time. There are a lot of things to be moved around in a factory.

    With the advent of new algorithms (SLAM, SIFT) around 2000 and relatively cheap (Kinect, etc.) range sensors, robots can now “see” in 3D. They can build maps and navigate within those maps as they are building them. This was demonstrated in the DARPA 2005 race. The Neato vacuum robot is a very successful commercial product example.

    Looking back to the 1970’s, autonomous mobile robots are not new. They are called cruise missiles. Prior to GPS, they traveled from launch to target by using side-looking radar and comparing their progress against up-to-date internal maps, making corrections as they went. This is not much different from a robot vacuum, except that the maps were pre-existing. The “modern” drones are actually simpler than this. They are just radio controlled airplanes, although very much more sophisticated than anything you can get at the hobby shop.

    Also, robots can use the 3D vision with the new object recognition algorithms (SIFT, SURF, ..) with the new 3D sensors to identify objects around them. These objects can be used as landmarks for navigation and as targets to be picked up and moved elsewhere. The ability to recognize a target where it is rather than where you might expect it to be is fundamental. This 3D vision is already being used in the factory to find candy bars scattered on a belt and move them into an ordered stream on another belt prior to being packed into boxes. The new navigation algorithms can also handle transient objects, such as people and animals. So the robot can do a job in a continuously changing, unpredictable environment.

    Using the Principle of Minimum Astonishment, robots are moving from the factory to the field (i.e., home, office, outdoors, etc.) They can because they can operate in open (unpredictable but familiar) environments. The Neato vacuum is a good example. It generates a new map every time it starts up. This handles the cases where the robot and the furniture have been moved since the last time the robot vacuumed.

    What the robots will do in the field is what they do in the factory, at least to start with: moving things. Examples:

    Vacuuming (moving dirt from the floor to a waste bin. (Neato)
    Moving stock from storage to an assembly area (Kiva – Amazon)
    Automated warehouses – automated fork lifts moving pallets in and out of the warehouse.
    Automated loading docks (In development)
    Delivering things from stock to point of use (Get me a beer, deliver lumber to building site)
    Picking things up and putting them away (Pick up the kids toys, Clean up robot at Disneyland)
    “Pack mule” for carrying things (Big Dog, automated golf cart, tool cart at a construction site)
    Self driving cars (and trucks) – THE BIG ONE.
    -The big inventions are about moving stuff: The wheel, boat, raliroad, car, airplane, etc.

    So, moving stuff around outdoors is where I would look for the (big) future of robots.

    Dave Wyland

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